Relating, Creating, Transforming

Matthew 14:22-33

walkingonwaterLet’s talk about miracles and metaphors and how the two can actually be friends or coexist–let’s talk about miracles. All religious traditions have miracles stories—things that happen and cannot be explained by science, biology, or empirical evidence. People turn into animals and vice versa, an entire sea parts in the middle and then closes up, someone blinds an entire army with a handful of dust, someone lifts a mountain and saves an entire village, someone rises in the air and divides his body into pieces and then rejoins them, someone walks on water. Those are just a few examples of miracles in folk religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.

For the sake of our exploration, I choose to use the definition of miracles presented in Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Woodward defines miracles as:

…an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others, that finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that is the result of a special act of God or the gods or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own through asceticism and meditation.

Woodward also argues that miracles are best understood through stories and should not be seen within the framework of the laws of nature or “proving” something.

Each specific religious tradition defines what a miracle is according to the context of the religion. As Woodward states, when it comes to miracles, we shouldn’t ask: did it really happen? but instead what does it mean?

So let’s do that.

Let’s look at this specific so-called miracle of Jesus, walking on water, not asking whether it happened or not, but what it means.

Jesus’ followers were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had gone up to a mountain to be by himself. When evening came, a storm started to rage the waters and the boat was tossed about violently. Morning came, and Jesus came walking towards the boat, seemingly on top of the water. The people in the boat were terrified and thought he might be a ghost. But Jesus reassured them and told them to not be afraid. Peter then got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus, on the water. But he noticed that a strong wind was blowing and he got scared again and started to sink. He cried out for help. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter.

So what does this mean?

In many ancient cultures and religions, including Christianity, it was normal to compare the difficult times of life with a stormy sea or some sort of choppy waters. So the people on the boat are us. They are life, and then the stormy sea represents the trials and tribulations of our lives. Jesus of Nazareth, walking on this stormy sea, represents the ability to rise above the difficulties of life, internally transcending the external. Jesus offered this ability to the people in the boat. Peter took Jesus up on his offer and was initially able to rise above the stormy sea. Eventually though, the wind distracted him and he was afraid. Fear then, was the thing that sunk Peter.

So by asking: what does this miracle story mean, I hope that you can glean some meaning for yourself. What stands out to me is that the story does not paint this life as an easy, pleasant experience. There is acknowledgement of the difficulty and suffering in life. We all face stormy seas; we all have moments when we feel that we are stranded in a boat in the middle of stormy waters, with not land in sight. This is human. This is real.

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia recently was real. White supremacists caused violence and spread hatred. One of those white supremacists drove a car into people–into people. Heather Heyer was killed. Two state police troopers were killed in a helicopter crash. Others were injured. “Unite the Right” organized the hateful rally. I cannot imagine what Heather’s and the two officer’s family and friends feel. I cannot imagine what African-Americans feel when these things keep happening. This is not new. This is consistently awful. Makes me think that those affected by racism and white supremacist violence and hate crimes feel like they are in a boat in the middle of a raging sea, but their boat has capsized and there is no end in sight. Where is the shore? When will this end?

resistHateCharlottesvilleThe rallies, gatherings, and protests since Charlottesville tell a different story, don’t they? People are together, standing up against hate, against prejudice of any kind. You see, it’s one thing to retweet things and post on Facebook, but it’s another thing to walk side by side with people and to stand in solidarity with those who feel targeted and marginalized. This is rising above.

Whatever you faith background [or lack thereof] I think it’s clear that Jesus stands with those who are oppressed, targeted, and on the margins. And Jesus points all of us to the possibility of being at peace even when life is full of storms. Being at peace does not mean ignoring the problems or suffering of life [and certainly not ignoring white supremacism or hatred of any kind], but rather, not letting those stormy seas take over our lives or keep us from being our whole selves.

In short, if we realize that it is human to go through these storms and we couple that with the thought that we are capable of rising above, of walking on water, then the storms aren’t the end of our stories.

There is shore somewhere.

And lastly, it is important to note that Jesus, in all of the miracle stories of the Gospels, is not supposed to be presented as a supernatural force performing magic tricks, but rather, a person who broke down societal norms and worked towards bringing more balance to the injustices of the world. He sought to change the narratives of those who were marginalized, teaching them and leading by example, that they too could rise above stormy waters and find wholeness.

Whom am I to say any of this? I’m no one. I’m someone with way too much privilege. But this will not keep me from helping others rise above the storms, extending a hand when needed, hoisting a sign in protest, speaking out against racism and prejudice, and stepping back when other voices need to be heard. This will not keep me from believing that being widening my circle of friends and colleagues to include more and more people who don’t think or look like me. I keep thinking, praying, meditating, hoping–that there is shore somewhere. But we will have to face these storms together.

P.S. Dear friends, family, colleagues, whomever who is experiencing racism, prejudice, discrimination, targeting–it’s evil and terrible. It’s inhuman. It’s the opposite of what the world is supposed to be. We won’t be complicit. We won’t be silent. We love you. You are us and we are you.

Forming Community

Matthew 14:13-21

rainbowgathering1What does the word/concept of “community” mean to you? It can seem a broad term, community, right? If you move into a suburban neighborhood, does that mean you are in a community? If you to the Community Center Shopping Mall does that mean you are in a community? What if we get more specific and say, as intentional community organizers do, that a community is a network of social and economic relationships and the places where those relationships interact. This means that just living near each other doesn’t mean you’re in community. There’s no economic exchange, and, for most, little social engagement. Community must be tangible and cohesive; it should bring people together in ways that allow them to do things they could not have done on their own. And then, there is such a thing as an “intentional community,” one in which there is a shared purpose and set of values, the people in that IC are entwined to some degree both economically and socially; and that being part of that IC means something.

I don’t think it’s surprising to say that many people in the United States want more community in their lives, because they often feel isolated and dissatisfied with everyday life that tends to be focused on work, consumption, and entertainment. If our interpersonal relationships within a community give us joy, meaning, or satisfaction, we can expect less of a focus on material and superficial things that leave us feeling empty.

Congregations, churches, communities of faith, are at their core, supposed to be intentional communities in which people find meaningful relationships, interact socially, share resources, and accomplish things they could have otherwise. Of course, just because someone puts up a steeple with a cross and places a sign that says “church” does not mean that it will be a community. I’ve spent significant time in my career visiting various churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious communities. Not all of them were communities. Some were merely buildings with signs; others were institutions. Forming and nurturing an intentional community takes time, cooperation, and the acceptance of the commitment community requires—active listening and sharing.

The type of community Jesus of Nazareth was intending to form and build was focused on gathering those who were marginalized in society and left out of communities. It is easy for us to forget that Jesus did not create nor establish a religion or even a church. Jesus was building community. And in Matthew’s Gospel there are various stories that illustrate what Jesus meant by community. In this particular story Jesus and his small community of followers came upon large crowds of people who were in need. After some healing and caring for them, Jesus’ followers were ready to leave. After all, there was not enough food for these people to eat. So they suggested to Jesus that he send the crowds away into the villages to get their own food. In other words, go to the market and leave us alone. But Jesus refused. Instead, Jesus told his followers to give the crowds something to eat.

But the followers of Jesus only had food rations—bread and fish that would most likely feed only 13 people. Jesus took those rations and gathered the crowds in a field of green grass, though it was a wilderness, far off, isolated. The fish then seem to disappear. Only the bread is divided among everyone. This is Matthew’s storyteller changing the story a bit from the original version in Mark, to make a point. The bread, offered to the crowds, was the sign of Jesus’ presence and the sign of the new community—one which would continue long after Jesus’ death. Because this feast was egalitarian. It was for all. It was a feast started because of compassion. It was a feast that created community intentionally. And in that community all were filled—people were made whole.

And let’s briefly mention the number 5000. Is it important? I think it is, because if we skip ahead a chapter in Matthew’s Gospel to chapter 15, we find another story about a feast where there is not enough food but suddenly there is. But this time, only 4000 are fed; Mark’s Gospel contains the 4000 story as well. This is the clue. The story about 4000 being fed takes place on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, Gentile country. But the feeding of the 5000 occurs near the Jewish villages of Galilee. So the 4000 feeding story is about non-Jews. The 5000 feeding story is about Jews. And it’s clear by the 5 loaves and the 5000 fed that the number 5 is important. That number happens to be the number of books in the Torah, called the Pentateuch. And the 12 baskets left over signify the 12 tribes of Israel. The feeding stories are inclusive.

One last detail to mention. In the culture and time of the people of this area, being unclean or touching unclean things was bad news. So people tried to avoid eating or touching anything that might render them unclean according to the law, food included. How were the 5000 to know that the food would be clean? They couldn’t really know. They couldn’t guess if Jesus and his followers kept up with the dietary restrictions. They couldn’t really prove that Jesus and co were clean because they had certainly touched and been with lepers and others who were unclean.

But they still ate anyway. And they were made whole.

They decided to eat together.

They decided to form this inclusive, intentional community. They made a choice. So we have this choice before us. Will we intentionally form and build an inclusive community where anyone can eat and be safe and belong and participate? This doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen on its own. We must make that choice. We must make that commitment. May it be so.

 

Matthew 13:44-46
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in their joy they go and sell all that they have and buy that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, the merchant went and sold all and bought it.

treasureHave you ever searched for hidden treasure? What about buried treasure, pirate treasure? There are treasures around the world that are hidden and waiting to be found, like the treasure of Lima, Peru; the golden owl of France; Lake Guatavita “el Dorado” in Colombia, and many others…

Guatavita-lagoonWhen I was a kid I used to go out into the rural expanse of Iowa and look for treasure in fields and grasslands. Sometimes I found First Nations arrowheads, other times amazing creatures living underground like massive ant colonies, centipedes, chipmunks, and more. At times I found coins or pieces of what seemed like pots or something.

Either way, I always believed that there was more treasure out there, just waiting to be found…

In religious traditions of the ancient worlds the idea of buried treasure within the natural world and within human beings was a common thread. It came to be known as the Divine Spark. The idea of a divine spark is that every human being possesses either a connection with God or a “part” of God. The goal of life, then, is to allow the divine spark to influence us toward love, peace, and harmony. Upon death, the divine spark returns to God. There are current expressions of this in most Western Mystical Traditions such as Kabbalah and Sufism and many Eastern spiritual traditions teach it.

lightinyourheartI know it may seem that the major world religions that dominate the landscape these days [especially in the West] seem to teach or display something contrary–saying that the Divine [God] is far too big and powerful to be close or hidden within these lands, streams, trees, and in the people on the earth. It is true that Christianity as a religion moved away from what was called Gnosticism by some in the time of Jesus, the idea of mysticism and Divine-Human connection. As time passed and as people formulated more and more perspectives about Jesus of Nazareth, they moved towards a more distant God that they chose to express as Creator, Son Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Of course, for many Christians, this is a doctrine: the Trinity. But what if we were to embrace the truth that the Trinity and this idea of God being far away was not a 1st and 2nd century Jesus-taught idea? What if we were to hear these words of the prophet Isaiah, in the Jewish tradition, written so long before Jesus:

I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name (45:3).

And one of the many times that Jesus was believed to have said this in the Gospels, like this instance in Luke 17:21: The kingdom of God is within you.

The idea that each of us contains within ourselves a portion of God, a Divine Spark, is old but also new. It is the idea that each time we quiet ourselves and sit in the grass and look deeper into it, what will we see?

Hidden treasure.

Life we didn’t notice before. When we are patient and look out on the water and pay attention, we see it. The spark is there. When we look deeply within ourselves and realize that we are indeed connected to something more, something deeper, something that is love and compassion and wholeness. It is there. You may not see it today because it may be buried within you for lots of reasons. You may have been told a false story that your life is not life or that your existence is not important. You may have been lied to and told that you are dirty or sinful or unworthy. You may have been hurt, rejected, or isolated because of the way you look, who you love, or how you express yourself. But none of these change this fact—that you have within you a Divine Spark. God has not left you and never will. That treasure, within all of us, is worth looking for, worth focusing on, worth finding and embracing.

 

Matthew 13:31-35
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with* three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:*
‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’*

A common remark I hear a lot these days goes something like this:

I can’t watch the news or stay informed with what’s going on the world, because it’s just so negative and divisive. I’m tired and I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling. How can I make a difference?  

I feel/have felt this too. Life in this world can wear us down and even seem to defeat us. Particularly those of us who are going through deep depression, anxiety, or who are consistently mistreated. This can lead to feeling that pretty much all things are out of our control and so what’s the point

I hope that in this message [and in two symbols] anyone feeling this way can find even a small bit of encouragement to keep living. I certainly don’t have all the answers and neither does any religious writing including the Bible, but in my experience [and in the experience of many others as well] there is a healthy balance of life we can live, even in a world so heavy and difficult.

Before we look at two symbols that will lead us there, allow me to mention briefly a philosophy that you may have heard of. Stoicism was a prominent school of thought in the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century. Stoics looked first to the natural world and found that there was one overall force balancing it all. They called this many names, including the Divine, or logos. Now if that sounds familiar, it should, be throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters these concepts resurface. Christianity, many historians believe, was influenced by Stoicism. The main aspect I want to focus on is that the Stoics thought that for human beings, the path to happiness was in accepting that which they had already been given [i.e. the life-logos], and then not allowing themselves to be controlled by desire for pleasure or fear of pain. This is an understanding that the overall logos balancing all the world is also in us and then compels us to work together with others and to treat them fairly and justly.

And now the two symbols: the mustard seed and yeast.

seeds.jpegNow the mustard seed is a tiny little thing. You may not notice it. It’s hidden. The mustard seed comes from the mustard greens plant. You can eat the greens and also, if you allow the plant to flower, you can harvest the seeds and use them as spices, in sauces and other delicious sides and condiments. So Jesus makes good use of hyperbole by mentioning the tiniest of seeds that will eventually grow like crazy and add spice to whatever it touches. Matthew’s author was clearly writing from a Jewish perspective and to a mostly-Jewish audience. So these references to trees and plants would have been familiar. And this naturalistic focus is akin to the Stoic view of nature-humanity.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the prophetic books, seeds, plants, and trees play a prominent role. Listen to this section of the book of Daniel, chapter 4:
11The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. 12Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.

About-The-Tree-of-LifeIn this case, the tree is God’s domain of provision, rest, and safety. So essentially, if you recognize that God is in a tree of life and in the tiniest of seemingly insignificant seeds, then you get it. God is big and balancing it all, but even the smallest of creatures participate in this.

We cannot control everything, but we can still be part of everything.

Any of us who have ever felt [or still feel] that our lives don’t matter or that we are so small, we are reminded that yes, we are small, but we are still important, still loved, still valued.

Then there’s the symbol of yeast.

parableoftheleavenjamesbjanknegt.jpegThis time, we find ourselves in a kitchen, and God is the chef, and God is a female. The divine baker is making bread and she uses a large amount of flour as if she is baking bread for hundreds of people. Then comes the yeast or leaven, which you may recognize as a common image in 1st Century Jewish life, but typically a negative symbol. Leaven was often a symbol of corruption. One rotten strawberry can spoil a whole basketful. But not this time. Now yeast is a positive force of growth and something that causes the hidden to be seen. The baker hides the yeast in the dough. After much kneading, she has made it so that the yeast is not visible or detectable. It’s now a part of the dough completely.

The yeast gives life to the dough. It’s creating something.

Left alone and covered, the dough starts to rise—it doubles in size. And then, in the heat of an oven, more rising, golden brown crust on the outside, and light and airy on the inside. You hungry yet?

So here’s my take. We are not meant to gloss over the heaviness of this life. We are meant to express what we feel as being part of our existence. And yet, if we can recognize the logos, the nature inside us, we can make progress towards love, towards wholeness, towards healing. A lot of us feel like mustard seeds. We may feel unnoticed, very small, and sometimes even without value. The heaviness and hatred in the world can make us feel that way. But mustard seeds can grow into something beautiful, delicious, nutritious, and spicy. They can bear flowers and eventually produce seeds. Even when you feel small and unnoticed, you are still capable of life. And your unique personality and gifts can add needed flavor to the community and to the world.

And yeast. It’s hidden growth and life. What and who you are on the inside is often not visible to others. You are made with the divine inside you. Life has already been breathed into you [like the CO2 air produced by yeast]. Sometimes you may not always notice that life, but it’s still there. Eventually, that life emerges from you and becomes visible on the outside. It grows and can even encourage others. Any small step when you embrace yourself, any small movement towards being more kind to yourself and to others, and the growth is accelerated. May it be so.

 

 

 

 

Matthew 13:1-9      
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” 

seedsThe story of the sower of seeds is pretty well-known. You don’t have to be religious to understand the metaphor either. A sower, a planter, goes out and throws some seeds on a path where some birds eventually eat them. Then, the sower drops some seeds on rocky ground; the seeds spring up right away but when the sun comes out they get burned and wither away. The sower also tosses some seeds where there are hardy thorns, which eventually grow too big and thus the seeds cannot grow. And yet, despite all this seemingly bad luck, the sower also manages to put some seeds where there is good soil, and eventually they grow and become food and abundance.

Some Christian theologians or preachers stick with the status quo interpretation of this parable, which is more or less a paraphrase of words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth [that follow the parable] in Matthew, Luke, and Mark, i.e. an explanation like this:

The soil is people’s hearts. The seeds are the Word of God, sometimes called the Gospel, or really, the heart of Christianity itself. Some people hear this word, receive this seed, but immediately harden their hearts and reject it. Others are like rocky soil, immediately accept the seeds but when life gets difficult, they fall away. Still others are like thorny soil and care more about material things and so the seeds don’t grow. And finally, some are like fertile soil and hear the Gospel and receive it joyfully and eventually bear fruit.

So kids, you should be the fertile soil, that is ready to receive Jesus and will bear fruit. Don’t be the rocky ground, or the thorns, or the birds. Believe in Jesus. The end.

jesusanswer

Of course, this interpretation [like all] is limited. I mean, I get why so many people interpret the parable this way, but I also must call attention to the harm that absolute or so-called “right” interpretations can cause others. For example, it is very easy [and it happens a lot] for people to start calling others rocky soil, or thorns, or the birds. It’s tempting to say that you are the fertile soil because you believe in Jesus or God or whatever. Isn’t it? Taken to its extreme, that is where this interpretation will carry you.

And yet, I think if we choose to look deeper into the parable [after all, that’s what Jesus taught people to do], we will discover that any of us who have felt/do feel like the rocky ground, the infertile soil, the thorns or the birds—that there is good news for us too, and that we don’t have to believing in a certain way to bear fruit in this life. So as briefly as I can, let me explain. Jesus of Nazareth was telling these stories to people in a particular context, right? In this case, Jesus was speaking to those who were seeking to follow him, his students. These students were eventually going to visit villages and towns where they would encounter people who were of various belief systems and the majority of them were poor or marginalized. Notice that they were not going to the big temples in the major hubs with this movement. And one last contextual thing: please, please remember that all of these Gospel books were written well after Jesus’ death. So all [and I mean all] of the stories about Jesus include commentary and contextual interpretations by the writers, reflecting on how Jesus died and the whole hindsight is 20/20 thing. You know what I mean?

Imagine you are writing a memoir of your best friend’s life. Your friend passed away 50 years ago. You look back on your friend’s life, you talk to people who share experiences with that friend, you gather 2nd and even third hand recollections and tales. And then, you combine all of those stories with your own memories and also your feelings since your friend passed away. That memoir would be just like the Gospels. I don’t say this to belittle the Gospels or to lessen their value, but I must say this because Western Christians tend to have an attitude about the Bible, as if every single word in the Gospels was actually said by Jesus and this makes Christianity the best religion ever. Okay, moving on…

Looking deeper into the parable, here’s what I see. The sower is careless and doesn’t care where the seeds fall.

Otherwise, why not just throw the seeds on the good soil? Nope. The sower keeps tossing seeds this way and that, no matter what. That, my friends, is what God does. God doesn’t say to you: Oh, you’re not good enough, or you don’t believe enough, so no seeds for you! Doesn’t work that way. I also am considering the context of Jesus’ words and what was happening all around. The religious and political powers were real threats to love and acceptance and real bullies too. They had no trouble stealing good things from the poor, marginalizing people who were different or who didn’t fit into society’s tiny little boxes. They also didn’t hesitate to choke out anyone who tried to counter their stringent systems that always favored the rich and the status quo.

So I’m hearing this story beg us to ask this question today, no matter where you are on your journey:

What kinds of seeds are we scattering, and will we be like the generous sower?

What kinds of seeds are we scattering wherever we go, when we interact with others, as we live this life? Are we choosing to scatter seeds of love and acceptance, of peacemaking and friendship, seeds of hope and seeds of grace? If so, will we only scatter them in comfort zones and with those we know? Or, will we choose to scatter our beautiful and kind seeds with reckless abandon, in all places and without hope of reward or ulterior motivation, other than to simply scatter love wherever we go?

Because yes, sometimes when we scatter seeds of love and acceptance all over the place, they will fall on rocky, thorny, or infertile soil. That’s true. But what if we keep scattering them anyway?  

For if we choose to be extravagant and reckless like the sower in the story, the seeds will hit the air like glitter and be carried by wind and breath and sheer luck and randomness, and they will fall where the fall and they will land on people’s faces and arms and feet, and because they are seeds of love and acceptance, they will sparkle as glitter does, and they will be light and not heavy, and they will add color and sparkle to the world and to people’s lives. And isn’t that worth the effort?

 

Finding Rest Rhythms

Matthew 11:25-30
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Abba, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Abba, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by God; and no one knows the Son except God, and no one knows God except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In this section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses both the crowds who oppose him and those who follow him. Once again we find Jesus breaking away from the norm, asserting that the ways of God are known to those on the margins and not known to the authorities, the rich, the powerful, etc. Those who know God are the ones who know Jesus and the way of love. Everyone who knows and follows this way is connected—both to God and to each other.

The last part of this Matthew story is only found in Matthew’s Gospel and in the Gospel of Timothy, verse 90. What does this oft-quoted Jesus saying mean to you? For the most part, I have heard people interpret this as something spiritual, i.e. come to Jesus those of you who are heavy and tired because of life, and Jesus will ease your suffering and give you peace. Similar to how some interpret prayer as something that can ease someone’s suffering or bring a sense of calmness. But what if we don’t over-spiritualize this? What if this is simply about rest, even physical, mental rest? Consider that Jesus was talking to people who actually were over-worked, tired, carrying actual heavy loads on their backs. 1st century Israel and Palestine was full of so-called poor people who carried these burdens, the burdens of oppression.

yokeThen we get the word “yoke” as Jesus encouraged those listening to take up his yoke. In Jewish tradition, yoke was an image for the Torah, the Law of Moses. Jesus was encouraging those with heavy burdens to take up his yoke and to learn from him. Taking on this yoke and learning goes back to following the way of love. It was a way that stood in contrast to the ways of powerful political and religious elites. This way of Jesus brings rest to people’s lives. In the Greek, the words for “rest” and “soul” are much more nuanced than our English language interpretations. Rest for the soul is not some sort of religious certainty or promise of heaven. It is a rest, a wholeness for the entirety of life, one’s whole being. It is a rest that can set you on the right path to move towards healing and recovery. And the yoke is more than light and easy. It’s not eggs. The yoke is loving, kind, refreshing.

Friends, it is an invitation [and a call] to live “lighter, less heavy” lives, to stop judging others, to be free ourselves and to let others be free. It is a restful state of being active in our pursuit of justice and dignity for all people. It is a way that leads us to stand with the marginalized, love them, call them family. And this is not a burden; it is the way to refreshment, healing, and wholeness.

Matthew 10:27-31

mylifematters1Our stories are valuable—absolutely valuable. Our stories most often define us. So when we share our authentic stories with each other, I think that we participate in a divine act.

I also think that Jesus of Nazareth understood this. Jesus was careful to take time to hear people’s stories—even the stories of people who had been pushed to the margins of society, told they were worthless, untouchable, or unclean. And in doing so, those stories became life—for those who heard them and for those who shared them.

In many ways, the community of people in the Gospel of Matthew were people whose stories were not being heard. Remember that Matthew was written well after Jesus’ death. The temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As Matthew was written mostly for Jewish people, this was a devastating time. They had little hope of their community and way of life being restored. They were persecuted. They were afraid. This is why Jesus tells them to not be afraid three times in only three verses of scripture. It’s urgent. They are hanging by a thread. The message that Jesus and the followers were speaking and living was dangerous, because they were trying to promote the idea that all people had access to God and were valued by God, even those whom the religious authorities and the Roman empire deemed worthless.

But they still were a community that whispered to each other in the dark because they were afraid. The threat of violence was real. The threat of their stories being trampled on was real. But Jesus told them that their stories needed to be told in the light, in the public square. Jesus told them not to fear the bullies but to fear instead the Evil One. Keep in mind that the “American” understanding of the “devil” is much different than what was uttered in Matthew’s Gospel. For the Jesus of Matthew, this devil had power to destroy both body and soul. This was far worse than any threats of the Romans or Sanhedrin/Religious authorities. This is not Jesus separating the real world from the spiritual—this is a connection. The very real Romans and religious authorities were oppressing people, and this was the work of the evil one.

Then Jesus closes with a more positive spin. Birds. Sparrows, to be more precise.

Sparrows were cheap and edible in the 1st and 2nd century. You could buy two sparrows for 1/16 of a denarius. Real cheap. But not even one of these cheap sparrows will fall to the ground apart from God. This means that the Divine cares for all the creation, including those whose stories had been trampled on, who had been pushed to the margins.

For all of you who still whisper in the dark because you are scared to be yourselves, have courage.

You are not alone.

You have value.

Your stories deserve to be told in the light.

For those of you who consistently live with fear and anxiety because of what people will do or say to you, find courage. You are loved. You are not alone. You have value. Your stories deserve to be told in the light.

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